For as long as the medium has existed, video games have been a platform for artistic expression. For many people, gaming is simply a means to an end, representing a way of relieving stress and partaking in a pastime. Those players look for quick interactions, often interrupted by the responsibilities of life; for others, gaming represents a hobby, one that is conducted with enthusiasm and loyalty. Over the past few generations, developers have sought to appeal towards the enthusiast crowd by tailoring the product to their desires. By doing so, gamers have been rewarded with more freedom and player agency than any other form of media.
The desire of player expression and freedom within a video game has not always been as prevalent as it currently is. Previous titles have sought to achieve this success by artificially simulating a rewarding environment that factors in player choices throughout the story. These games promote the weight of player choices, only to have them be disregarded at the mercy of its story. As time goes on and developers find new ways of crafting unique stories, the industry has seen fewer titles that falsely represent player freedom. Titles such as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption 2 have shown willingness to push the envelope further and grant players the highest level of freedom without sacrificing integrity. These games find ways to uphold the sanctity of storytelling while also rewarding the player experience.
Ubisoft’s latest game, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, drastically alters the way previous titles in the franchise were experienced. With Odyssey, players are no longer forced to uphold the purity of the Assassin’s Creed, allowing them to kill whomever and plunder whatever. Players can now steal, murder, betray, and disobey anyone they choose to, so long as their actions fit within the confines of the overall story. Unlike Assassin’s Creed Origins, dialogue choices are among many new additions to the game that seek to provide players with more freedom and agency in their world. Doing so allows players to respond to character choices and actions through their own personal emotions. Furthermore, the developer has included additional game modes that alter the player experience to increase realism. At any point during the game, players have the ability to turn off guided mode in favour of more exploration. Not only does this change slightly increase difficulty and play-time, it challenges the player to use their surroundings when searching for quest objectives and characters. In this mode, certain quest markers are removed and replaced with text that provides guidance towards the game’s objective. All of this works towards making the world of Odyssey feel alive, while reinforcing player agency in the process.
In Assassin’s Creed Odyssey the player can encounter unique experiences impossible in previous titles. Due to the game’s encouragement of player choice, gamers may choose to cater Kassandra’s personality to their liking, causing for interesting encounters. One such encounter is a side quest that requires the character to aid a bachelorette in crafting a love potion to make a wealthy aristocrat fall for her. This task came at the behest of a witch who overheard the conversation and presented the solution. Upon returning with the required materials, the witch will betray Kassandra and the bachelorette, stealing the aristocrat for herself and leaving the quest giver “unattractive” in the process. With the constant insulting and degrading comments from the witch, accompanied by the pleas of revenge by the bachelorette, the player may choose to act on impulse and murder the witch for taking advantage of the player’s time. This act causes both positive and negative effects. On the positive side, the player will receive a high-level Witch Staff to be used in combat. The trade off is every other NPC in the area will attack Kassandra on sight, and the bachelorette will become afraid of the player.
Much like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Red Dead Redemption 2 seeks to implement similar features, while taking things a step further. RDR2 aims to provide the ultimate level of agency and freedom in any game to date. Forgetting that a game is being played when hiking through the American Wild West can be easy, as RDR2 encourages players to take time away from their questing and adventuring, and focus on the finer details of life. Tasks such as maintaining player hygiene, and a dependency on hunting awareness will improve the game’s overall realism. Gamers must be cautious of how they hunt and transport their animal corpses due to the possibility of tainting the carcass, resulting in little to no profit. Additionally, map evolutions and a reliance on world knowledge will become a large factor of the player experience throughout the game. As time progresses, locations and buildings will change to reflect the events happening in the world.
Similar to Odyssey’s exploration mode, RDR2 will offer an experience reminiscent of older RPG titles. The game will support a fully customizable HUD, allowing the entire game to be played with nothing but the character on screen. While on the topic of the main character, over time his hair and facial hair will grow longer, allowing the player to decide whether they would like a grizzled veteran or sleek killer. Furthermore, as the player gets dirtier throughout their story, characters and NPCs will react differently to their hygiene and upkeep. All these mechanics are in place to encourage the players to play RDR2 not just as a video game, but as an experience. Instead of forcing everyone to play the same game, Rockstar Games has crafted an experience that, although sharing the same story, will yield varied results among players.
Despite driving the industry into a new and potentially greater direction, promoting true agency and player freedom also has its side effects as being partially misleading in some cases. Within the industry are well-known titles that have built their reputation upon the ideology of player choice and freedom of decision but focus too much on the delivery and not the execution. This is known as artificial agency and it can be found in games of the Mass Effect series, Detroit: Become Human, and anything Telltale Games had published in its later years. Artificial agency is a concept that promotes player choice and values their decisions throughout the game, only to be rewarded with little to no payout after the events and by the end of the game. These titles encourage tough decision making and leave players with the impression that a game-changing choice was made, only to have it all thrown away in the end.
Artificial agency does not take away from the legacy these games have created for themselves and the reputation that has been built with fans. The Mass Effect series and Telltale’s The Walking Dead have proven themselves to be among some of the greatest games of the past generation. However, players should not forget the controversy surrounding the ending of Mass Effect 3, and how it left fans with an empty feeling, as if every decision they had made over the course of three games amounted to nothing. Similarly, Telltale Games would often force players to make critical decisions, indicated afterwards by a short phrase “Someone will remember that,” only to have it be an offhand comment made at a later time. The lack of a foundation that fully appreciates player agency and freedom held these titles back from changing the industry then, but in their wake created a desire to achieve more in the genre. These mis-steps paved the way for titles such as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption 2 to build upon their foundation and craft experiences that are both unique and rewarding to every player.
The argument surrounding player choice and agency in video games is derivative of the old philosophical debate of “the journey versus the destination.” The version of this debate modified to fit within the duality of agency and artificial agency is instead “execution versus delivery.” As aforementioned, where games that promote artificial agency falter is in the delivery of how choice affects storytelling rather than its execution. Every decision made within these titles only affect the story surrounding those key moments. For example, the player encounters a problem and when choosing a solution, the reward is delivered to them shortly after and within the plot of that story arc. In contrast, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption 2 focus on the execution of gamer choices to have an impact on the overall world and experience. Once a problem is encountered and a solution is given, the reward is executed overtime and consistently throughout the rest of the playthrough. This method not only rewards the player’s decision at that moment, but reinforces that their experience is unique by tailoring the game to them.
Not every title released within the industry should need to strive to provide full agency for their players. Most titles are self-contained stories that are meant to be experienced in one way or another. The developers of these games pour love and dedication into providing an experience and journey for their players, through the eyes of a main character or characters. Games such as The Last of Us have proved that their title is unmatched by others due to the narration and direction of storytelling by its creators. The Last of Us would not have had the same emotional impact if players could freely control Joel’s actions and make his decisions for him. In fact, the game’s divisive ending was intentional and included without compromise, reminding the player that, despite playing the game as Joel, they are only experiencing the story through his eyes and actions. Every decision he makes is a product of his own desires. The decision to maintain this integrity by the developer upholds the sanctity of storytelling in video games and helped humanize these characters by giving them lifelike traits and habits. The Last of Us shows the industry that video games can be used as a platform to make statements about society, and reach a broader audience outside of those who are constantly in tune with the world. By eliminating player choice from certain games that uphold narrative above all else, it forces players to witness opinions and experiences that are different from their own.
Overall, one can say that true player agency is a sum of all its parts. While the industry continues to develop ways in which player choice should be rewarded, development in this area should not be done without the consideration and appreciation of games that lack these features. Without the desire from players to have their games tailored in different ways, the industry would not have developers who push the boundaries of storytelling, and deliver an experience that is truly unique. These unique experiences are not solely found in large open world games, but also in games that favour artistic storytelling over player freedom. If every game required its player to simulate their life within its story, players would have no time for anything outside of gaming. Storytelling in video games exists within the concept of Yin and Yang: a balance is required between titles that focus on story of an artistic expression, and titles that focus on player expression. Without games that promote artistic storytelling such as The Last of Us, one would have no appreciation for those that reward player choice like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.